Games and teamwork

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew (book cover)

One of my favourite children’s books is I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew by the great Dr Seuss. It contains that wonderful description of teamwork:

… ‘This is called teamwork. I furnish the brains.
You furnish the muscles, the aches, and the pains.
I’ll pick the best roads, tell you just where to go.
And we’ll find a good doctor more quickly, you know.’
Then he sat and he worked with his brain and his tongue
And he bossed me around just because I was young.
He told me go left. Then he told me go right.
And that’s what he told me all day and all night.

Is that really teamwork, though? There are requirements on true teamwork, and these requirements include processes that are (at least to some degree) democratic. But apart from that, what does a good team really look like?

In a 2006 paper in Simulation & Gaming, José P. Zagal, Jochen Rick, and Idris Hsi explore Reiner Knizia’s “Lord of the Rings” board game, in which a team of up to five people play the roles of hobbits intent on destroying Sauron’s ring.


Reiner Knizia’s “Lord of the Rings” board game

Zagal et al. find that this collaborative board game models four aspects of more realistic teams:

  1. There is a genuine tension between perceived individual utility and team utility.
  2. Players may, if they wish, take actions which go against group consensus.
  3. Players are able to trace outcomes (good or bad) back to player decisions.
  4. Players have varying strengths and weaknesses in the context of the game.

These characteristics make the “Lord of the Rings” board game, and similar collaborative board games, fascinating tools for exploring teamwork at its best (or at its worst), and for exploring strategies for improving team effectiveness. And they’re fun, too!

– Tony

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7 Responses to Games and teamwork

  1. Tony says:

    The SCUDHunt studies by CNA and ThoughtLink should also be mentioned as a great way of exploring teamwork.

  2. Robert McAuliffe says:

    Computer games can exhibit the same kinds of teamwork, but often they degrade into the sum of individual efforts, rather than being greater than the sum of their parts. One exception is Natural Selection (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_Selection_%28video_game%29), which has a surprisingly strong team component.

    Natural Selection casts one of the team players (on the ‘marines’ team) as the commander, with a top-down view of the arena. The commander then gives instructions to his troops (the other human players on the marine team), who see them as messages and corresponding waypoints.

    The interesting bit is that people who stray from the commander’s team plan and the current team focus often die an early death (in-game, of course). Given a good commander, this often leads to a high degree of team cooperation, since players live longer and are more successful when following the group objective.

    Of course it helps that the commander can drop health and ammo directly onto the player if they feel the player is cooperating…

  3. Tony says:

    That’s fascinating, Robert! I’d love to see some formal studies of that game.

    Of course, it sounds like more of a hierarchy than a “pure” team. One interesting thing about the computer game SCUDHunt, and about board games like “Lord of the Rings,” “Pandemic,” or “Arkham Horror,” is that all the players are on a totally equal footing (although they may choose or evolve a leader).

    The issue about “degrading into the sum of individual efforts” is extremely important when such games are used for research or training purposes — the game must be designed in such a way that players roles interact, and that success requires true cooperation.

  4. Marty says:

    A big thanks for an amazing piece of gamer info.

  5. Tony says:

    You’re welcome. 🙂

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